Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt - review

Last week I visited The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt  - the first ever exhibition of portrait drawings by European Old Masters at the National Portrait Gallery.

Drawings by Holbein
It shows forty-eight portrait drawings by artists who worked in Europe in the 15 and 16th centuries and shows how they moved away from copying "pattern books" to making drawings from observation.
The exhibition includes some of the hidden treasures of Britain’s finest collections, as the drawings’ sensitivity to light means they cannot be put on regular display.
This is not a blockbuster type of exhibition - but it does fill two rooms and a couple of ante rooms - and it does include some very special drawings.

The exhibition opened to the public on Thursday 13th July and runs until 22 October 2017.

This is my review. You can find links to reviews by others at the end of this post.

(Left) Dr Tarnya Coooper and (right) Dr Charlotte Bolland
The exhibition has been three years in the making and has been co-curated by
They gave an excellent tour of the exhibition and, if you're interested in portrait drawings, I suggest you book up for The Encounter: an Exhibition in the Making (on Thursday 27 July, at 7pm. ) in which the co-curators talk about the process of creating an exhibition like this - with loans from all sorts of prestigious collections.

What's interesting about this exhibition?

Drawings were selected to record different types of connections between sitters and artists. Interestingly because they are also drawings and not paintings, they record a wider group of people than we are used to seeing in portraits from the same era.
Some of the people depicted in these portraits can be identified, such as the emperor’s chaplain or the king’s clerk, but many are the faces from the street – the nurse, the shoemaker, and the artist’s friends and pupils in the studio – whose likenesses were rarely captured in paintings during this period. 
Highlights of the exhibition include

  • 15 drawings generously lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection, including eight portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger; 
  • a group of drawings produced in the Carracci studio from Chatsworth; and 
  • the British Museum’s preparatory drawing by Albrecht Dürer for a lost portrait of Henry Parker, Lord Morley, who had been sent to Nuremberg as ambassador by King Henry VIII.
You are greeted by this wonderful Holbein Drawing

John Godsalve
by Hans Holbein the Younger c.1532-4

black and red chalk, ink, bodycolour and white heightening on prepared paper
Copyright: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017 | Royal Collection Trust
The exhibition is constructed around a number of themes which are:

Learning to draw and copying from the Master 

This examines historical practice in relation to how students learned to draw -including from books of examples. 

Drawing from Life 

In the 15th century, when paper became more readily available, observation from life and drawing from nature on paper became established practice. As a result the sketch or study increases in importance.  Drawing from a live model rather than an antique sculpture became more prevalent. Life drawings were typically done in black and red chalk on paper. The exhibition includes drawings from life by da Vinci...

A sheet of figure studies, with male heads and three sketches of a woman with a child
by Rembrandt von Rijn c.1636 
ink, brown wash, red and black chalk on paper
Copyright: The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
There's also a wonderful book of proportional studies of a nude woman by Albrecht Dürer published in 1528.

Drawing in the Studio: Artists and Assistants 

One of the easiest ways to develop skills in drawing from life was to ask the studio assistant to act as the model (a practice which has endured through to the present day - see drawings by David Hockney and Lucian Freud)

Drawing assistants and friends

Drawing among Friends: the Carracci Studio

One wall is dedicated to drawings from an academy of art in Bologna which was founded by the Carracci cousins - who were obsessed with drawing. The studio drew all those who came to the studio - including art lovers, students, apprentices - and their friends. This wall includes the feature image for the cover of the catalogue of the exhibition (see below) which is a fast drawing in pen and ink. The advantage for those who developed a facility with drawing in pen and ink is that they could develop a portrait drawing full of character - with likeness and personality.

Giulio Pedrizzano, The Lutenist Mascheroni
by Annibale Carracci c.1593-4

Copyright: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017 | Royal Collection Trust 

Drawing Children 

Always a challenge for any artist due to (1) the difference in proportions; and (2) their limited attention span! The exhibition provides examples of how artists endeavoured to address the issue - by drawing your own children; by giving them something to focus on; by drawing in pen with economy and precision; by creating poses which a child might be expected to maintain (if their character allowed)

Personal presence

The creation of drawings which are evocative of the actual person is always a particular challenge. Careful observation is one method adopted to create a convincing likeness

Personal Presence section

Drawing the Court: Hans Holbein the Younger 

I have to confess, much as it was interesting to see drawings by Durer or da Vinci or Rembrandt - I kept being drawn back to the Holbein drawings. I absolutely love Holbein drawings because of their sense of these being a record of a real human being and not a stock figure, of them having been drawing from life - and the sheer economy of effort for maximum impact.

Holbein drawings
Holbein spent two periods in England - from 1526-1528 and then from 1532v until his death in 1543.  Over 100 of his portrait drawings survive - many of them (like the one below) including notes of colours and annotations on a study for a portrait. Black velvet is written across her bodice area.

Young Woman in a French Hood, possibly Mary Zouch
by Hans Holbein the Younger c.1533
Copyright: Royal Collection Trust Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Holbein drawings

Capturing Likeness

Very often we have no idea who the subject of the drawing is. We don't know whether or not it is a good likeness. However those skilled in drawing can often convey the character of the sitter and their personality.

Likenesses of the artist's shoemaker and a man wearing a wide collar

The exhibition includes drawings by a number of old masters. We're more used to seeing their portrait paintings and much less used to seeing their portrait drawings or the techniques they used to record people. The old masters include:
  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 
  • Annibale Carracci, 
  • Albrecht Dürer, 
  • Hans Holbein the Younger, 
  • Filippino Lippi, 
  • Antonio di Puccio Pisano (Pisanello), 
  • Francesco Salviati, Rembrandt van Rijn, 
  • Anthony Van Dyck and 
  • Leonardo da Vinci. 
The exhibition also came about as a result of the Gallery’s continuing interest in exploring the practice of making portraits in a variety of media throughout history.  

The exhibition also includes a display and a video of the types of drawing tools and media used – from metalpoint to coloured chalks.

Exhibition Events

There is a wide range of events associated with this exhibition. Talks and workshops will explore the artist’s techniques and practices with contributions from a range or art historians and contemporary artists.

Unfortunately the webmaster appears to have gone on holiday without making sure that the exhibition microsite or the main website has a record of all of them! I can only give you the link to the events page - in the hope that somebody looking after the website at the NPG will pull out their proverbial and get on with making sure that the website and microsite record properly the events on offer

I wouldn't make a point of saying all this but I don't ever recall another occasion where a new exhibition has been so badly served by the NPG webmaster. What's more I alerted the press team last week about this - and know they took action - and I've held off this post while it was fixed - but I've given up waiting!

  • Tickets with donation: Full price £10 / Concessions £8.50
  • Tickets without donation Full price £8 / Concessions £6.50 (Free for Members and Patrons)
  • Catalogue available in the NPG shops.

Other Reviews

As always I take a look around to see who else has reviewed the exhibition and include links to their reviews as well.
'There is something exciting about seeing the very scratches and smudges made by the fingers and crayons of the finest artists, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Rembrandt. There is a page of Rembrandt drawings, clearly done at breakneck speed, showing male faces, tousled hair and a woman breastfeeding, which bring you immediately into his room in 1636, as if it was here and now. There are Holbein drawings of wary youths from the court of Henry VIII so fresh you could bump into them in half the bars of London tomorrow; this exhibition is like being shoved into a party full of characterful, unforgettable strangers.’ Andrew Marr, broadcaster, writer and artist - Mail on Sunday Event Magazine, 9 July 2017

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